Empty sites are ghosts of Norwich’s past

Just as Scrooge was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol, anyone who wanders around Norwich this winter will find themselves surrounded by reminders of what once was.

But these aren't spirits of the supernatural kind, these are the ghosts of buildings.

The city is dotted with structures which once signalled an exciting future, but which are now firmly rooted in the past – hollow husks, boarded-up and unloved.

Among them are offices – once hives of activity, but now still and silent as they wait for the bulldozers to arrive.

Some have been empty for years and years, and some still contain the chairs and desks left behind when the people who used to work there left for the final time.

One of the most iconic buildings which is currently in a state of limbo is Sovereign House at Anglia Square. Reminders of its time as Her Majesty's Stationery Office have been left behind amid the derelict buildings.

Built in the 1960s, the building in Anglia Square was once the official publishing and stationery department of the UK's government and home to more than 800 staff.

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But it closed at the end of the 1990s and today it remains in limbo. Centenary Ashcroft has plans to demolish it as part of a redevelopment scheme for Anglia Square, but the recession has stalled that scheme for now.

A Norwich City Council spokesman said: 'Permission has been granted for the demolition of Sovereign House as part of redevelopment of the area.

'Gildengate House is part occupied, but also has permission to be demolished under the same scheme. However, a new application is expected to be submitted in the new year for a scheme that includes the refurbishment of this block for offices.'

In the meantime, Sovereign House looms over the north of the city, a reminder of the vision of the future which planners had half a century ago.

While few would shed tears over Sovereign House's demise, it is a different story at another Norwich building which has seen better days. Civic watchdogs The Norwich Society have raised their concern over the state of Howard House, in King Street.

The Grade II* listed house, once owned by the parents of Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII, is now surrounded by scaffolding.

It was caught up in problems after the developers of the adjacent St Anne's Wharf project went into administration and is in a poor state of repair.

While the administrators Begbies Traynor has pledged to do what it can about the house, its future would seem to depend on a trust taking over the care of it.

It's an inauspicious situation for such a historic house, which dates back to the 17th century and was built for Henry Howard, the sixth Duke of Norfolk.

Vicky Manthorpe, administrator for the Norwich Society, said: 'Howard House has been victim of being passed back and forth among developers for 20 to 30 years and it's now in the hands of the administrators.

'It's so important and has such a rich history.

'It's a lovely house and it is so important to the look of that street.'

On the number of deserted or derelict buildings around Norwich, Mrs Manthorpe said: 'These sorts of buildings are dotted around the city. In some cases the city council is trying very hard to get them sorted out and in the cases of places like Westlegate Tower, we'd be glad to see it go.

'Norwich Preservation Trust, which was set up in association with the society and the city council, has done some excellent work with some of the historic buildings.

'They really know their stuff and, when they take over buildings, they deal with them very well.'

Since the 1970s the trust has helped transform buildings in Muspole Street, Bethel Street, Oak Street and more recently Magdalen Street to get them back in use.

The Norwich Preservation Trust has been funded to commission a local firm of architects to carry out an options appraisal on Howard House and it is hoped that will lead to the trust taking on the property in 2011 and bringing it back into use.

But, as Mrs Manthorpe hinted, one empty building which nobody is rushing to breathe new life into is Westlegate Tower. This 11-storey building – considered by many to be one of the ugliest in Norwich – has been empty since 1996.

When it was first built the developers promised it would be 'a pencil of light' – a sparkling addition to the Norwich skyline.

That was back in 1959 when hopes were high for the project, with no shortage of enthusiasm from councillors, developers and the public in general, with businesses said to be queuing up to move in there.

Dubbed the Glass Tower, the plans were approved without discussion at a committee meeting in City Hall and architects declared the mass of glass windows as giving the structure 'real beauty – providing the most wonderful effect in daylight'. Today the empty building stands neglected and forlorn, with even McDonald's, the last tenant on the ground floor, having shut up shop to move to the Haymarket.

Proposals to close Westlegate to traffic have sparked hopes the tower, which dwarfs its surroundings, could finally be pulled down, but the prohibitive cost of demolition is a high hurdle.

A spokesman for Norwich City Council said: 'The council remains concerned about the blighting effect of Westlegate Tower and has published a masterplan for the St Stephen's Street area, including some future options

'We continue to urge the owner to come up with plans to improve the site and will be meeting with them again to discuss what might be done.'

Considered of more architectural merit are the old offices of the brewery Steward, Patteson, Finch and Co, at the junction of Silver Road and Barrack Street.

More recently used as offices by Virgin One, the building is currently boarded up, but has recently been re-let and is due to be refurbished.

Mrs Manthorpe said: 'It's a fabulous Edwardian building and we have been very concerned about it.

'Somebody went in there and stole the pipes, which meant it was badly damaged by flooding.

'But it's a wonderful building and the interior is wonderful.'

The society is also keeping an eye on 41, All Saint's Green, most recently used as a dentists' surgery, but currently boarded up. The city council says its future use is under review.

But for a more contemporary ghost building, look no further than Zavvi's in Castle Meadow. Once Virgin Megastore, people flocked through the doors when it opened in May 1993.

A couple of Christmases ago the building would have been heaving with people searching for last-minute Christmas presents.

But Zavvi, which had taken over from Virgin, went into administration earlier this year and the top floor now stands empty.

The Mall, Norwich, is still looking for a new tenant, although the downstairs section was recently occupied by clothes store Notting Hill.

Only time will tell if 2011 will be the year when the ghosts are exorcised from some of those buildings...